Bridging Beliefs With Bridgerton
Note: This post contains spoilers about the Netflix series Bridgerton and its source material by Julia Quinn.
Ah, Bridgerton. The show Netflix kept suggesting and friends kept asking if I’d seen while I held out, exhausted by period dramas that focus on trite, contrived romantic storylines while reinforcing gender stereotypes we’ve fought for centuries to overcome. But, I’m a history fan - especially a British history fan - and folks wore me down, so I sat down one recent Saturday and watched the entire first season of a show that’s hooked so many viewers.
Let’s start with the good stuff
The costumes and set designs are fantastic. I’ll take any look into historic London I can get, and yes, I’d love to wear some of those gowns.
Some of the actors are really good, managing not to overdo it too much in a show that’s chronically over the top. Polly Walker is great as the scene-stealer you love to hate, and she doesn’t disappoint as Portia Featherington, matriarch of a “new money” family who’s looking to marry off her flock of daughters and stave off scandal. Regé-Jean Page lures you in as the intimidating, quick-witted, and staggeringly good-looking Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset. Sweet-faced Nicola Coughlan deftly delivers as the heart-breakingly overlooked Penelope Featherington. Jonathan Bailey is intense as the dashingly handsome and put-upon viscount and head of the titular family. Golda Rosheuvel straight kills it as Queen Charlotte, who in real life kept up appearances while her husband, King George III, suffered from severe and long bouts of infirmity (a storyline the show depicts). Adjoa Andoh sends chills down your spine as the forceful and insightful Lady Danbury, the erstwhile best friend of Simon's long-deceased mother.
There’s some really, umm, let’s say strong chemistry between some of Bridgerton’s characters; when it was released in December, the show quickly earned notoriety for its steamy, sexy scenes. In fact, a fair number of my friends watched it almost solely for its moments of extreme ardor. Without getting too explicit, I’ll just say that as an advocate for women’s agency, I appreciated that Bridgerton’s leading lady, Daphne Bridgerton, had some keen moments of self-discovery.
Finally, and most importantly, this television adaptation portrays an alternate universe in which people of color fill roles that, in real-life Regency England, they would not have been able to get anywhere near (apparently, the source material did not feature this diversity, either). This Hamilton-esque approach is not only fabulous in its own right, but also provides the opportunity for serious contemplation about the role race has always played in society and gives this often-frivolous show some of its most poignant moments.
The first season centers mostly around Simon and Daphne Bridgerton, a debutante who’s just been presented to the queen and is officially on the marriage market. Daphne and Simon (an old school chum of Daphne’s older brother Anthony and one of London’s most eligible yet resistant bachelors) formulate a “let’s pretend we’re actually courting” scheme to keep grasping high society moms away from the duke while making Daphne the debutante to beat during London’s annual social season*.
**Major spoilers from this point on**
What ensues is very Jane Austen-esque: the reluctant young man of high status predictably banters, bickers, and broods his way all the way into love and to the altar with the female lead. But all is not well in paradise: Simon doesn’t want children, while Daphne wants them so badly that she can barely cope in her new role as wife and duchess. The wedge this drives between the newlyweds is so big that they eventually agree to take the traditional route of repressed couples everywhere: separate lives, brave public faces.
Before they officially part ways, Simon indulges Daphne by agreeing to host, as a couple, an end-of-season ball at their London home. It’s at this ball that Daphne has some kind of rain-soaked, existential awakening in their courtyard, in full view of London’s high society, while the duke looks on and has his own rainy epiphany. Their passionate, sopping-wet embrace lets us know the duke’s decided he wants to have children with her after all, while also reminding us Bridgerton remains committed to being completely over the top whenever possible.
The child challenge
Simon’s change of heart regarding Daphne’s yearning for children is just too convenient and groan-inspiring. Seriously, watching his wife have some kind of rainy revelation of self-acceptance in front of London’s high society really catapulted him from determinedly childfree to all-in on kids? As a childfree person who has made and kept her own vow to the CF life, I can tell you those changes of heart are not made overnight (or, in Simon’s case, over the course of a few minutes during an inconvenient rainstorm). The domestic friction caused by disagreements over having children is a real struggle, which the show sufficiently depicts, but the “happily ever after because one of us completely abandoned our principles” is rather insulting and too contrived.
For a 21st-century show based on novels written years ago and supposedly aimed at representing our world today while simultaneously taking place in Regency England, I’m disappointed the showrunners didn’t take a different path here. Daphne could have had less of the stereotypical “GOTTA HAVE CHILDREN!” fanaticism and Simon’s soul-crushing insecurity about his family’s social position could have been better explored. In fact, I was shocked and disappointed to see only one real deep dive into his insecurity over his family’s status in English high society, especially considering that particular storyline has the potential to take this series from almost laughably ridiculous to respectably meaningful. (It could also reinforce the historical reality that the fates of members of the peerage and high society were almost entirely at the mercy of mercurial and sometimes straight-up unwell monarchs and fellow power-players.)
Women what now?
I took issue with many of the womens’ storylines, but obviously, any look at how women were treated throughout, well, most of history is bound to produce some serious frustrations. So, let’s dive into just one source of frustration for a modern-day woman - Daphne.
Daphne is simultaneously insipid and calculating. One minute, she’s boring you silly as the most annoyingly dumbfounded woman in Mayfair (I’m considering rewatching season one solely to count the number of times she just stands there with her mouth hanging open), and the next minute she’s storming off into a garden to set up a series of events I’m convinced she foresaw as her chance to force Simon’s hand. (And also, the whole dramatically storming away thing? Just obnoxious.)
A young woman in Daphne’s social class during that time period would’ve known a young lord like Simon was pretty much honor-bound to protectively follow her into the garden while also knowing her honor and his would be compromised if they were even seen alone together. In a series that already diverges from the source material in some pretty major ways, couldn’t Daphne have broken the mold of her stereotype-ridden book character? I found myself in a most undesirable situation as I watched this play out: a feminist who’s actively rooting against a woman while feeling intense shame for judging her.
My beef is really with the showrunners, who could’ve taken advantage of the alternate universe they created to craft a more sympathetic and inspiring female lead instead of making us cringe over Daphne’s stereotypical “feminine” machinations while challenging us to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Bridgerton makes scheming and traditional gender roles and expectations not only look totally OK, but also totally worth it. The dainty, pretty little slip of a debutante gets the hottest guy in London after all, and they set off to fulfill their social and gender expectations.
It’s all way too contrived and convenient for me to shrug off, which at least one friend who knows me well warned me of when she found out I intended to watch the show at long last. The ruse-turned-romance between a handsome and cynical-yet-charming young man of means and status and the infantilized, marriage-and-baby-crazed debutante is not only eye-rollingly trite, but also a seriously bad example of what love should, and in reality does, look like. Again, in a series that’s already diverged from the source material in some really brave and fantastic ways, can’t our romantic leads have been a little less stereotypical? Take that alternate universe and get nuts, Shondaland! Turn Regency England on its head!
I get that shows like Bridgerton are an escape from modern life, where chivalric men, proper young ladies, and the occasion for ball gowns are in serious decline - especially amid a pandemic that’s forced us into a socially distanced drudgery that seems never-ending. But give me a break with the dramatically hopeless yet unbelievably possible romances that come to fruition if you simply scheme your way into perfectly timed garden storm-offs and early-morning rides to the dueling field. By the way, if that garden scene happened IRL in 2021, some nosy bully/social rival is liable to do far more than simply hold your indiscretion over your head - they’d have it up on Instagram with a most gasp-inducing filter before your older brother had the chance to conveniently run up, throw a punch, and utter the words “honor” and “duel.”
So, will the showrunners of Bridgerton step up and break the mold in season two? Will we see fewer overly dramatized scenes about the 1% and more deep dives into the diversity of their alternate universe? Will Eloise, Daphne’s independent-minded little sister and the Bridgerton next in line for marriage, rock a childfree life in the TV series (although it’s my understanding that’s not her storyline in the books)? Will future seasons tackle the issue of race in a way that better reflects modern viewers’ experiences?
Although I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, I’ll watch season two when it finally releases - with the hope that Bridgerton learned enough from its first season to make its subsequent seasons a little less groan-inducing. They created this alternate universe; let’s see if they take advantage of the flexibility that affords them.
*The social season was a real thing. Each year, the British upper-crust took up residence in their London homes and idly strolled around Mayfair to see and be seen, debutantes were presented to the monarchy and shown off at balls and garden fêtes to attract husbands, and betrothals sealed political alliances and social statuses. Rivalries, especially where marital matches were concerned, were indeed fierce; fortunes and fates could rise or fall within a single season, depending on a family’s ability to make good matches for their children and remain scandal-free.
P.S. For some serious LOLs, I highly recommend Vulture’s Bridgerton reviews.